Caleb Porter - Bruce Arena - handshake
USA Today Sports Images

Bruce Arena, Caleb Porter as rivals? New England, Columbus coaches have "great relationship" | Charles Boehm

The gif began to recirculate within minutes of it being determined that Columbus Crew SC would host the New England Revolution for Sunday’s Eastern Conference Final (3 pm ET | TV & streaming info).

Fans of Crew SC, and a few Portland Timbers faithful, splashed it across social media with glee: The time Caleb Porter got the best of Bruce Arena.

It was a Timbers-LA Galaxy clash at a packed Providence Park back in July of 2013. LA were the undisputed kings of MLS, in the midst of a run of three league championships in four years, and Porter was a hotshot young coach, fresh off a dominant NCAA stint with Akron, charting Portland’s climb into the elite.

After Andrew-Jean Baptiste nodded home an injury-time winner to snatch a 2-1 Timbers win, a masterful bit of sideline camera work captured Porter celebrating lustily – and seeming to fling a few choice words in his elder counterpart’s direction – as bedlam reigned in downtown Portland.

A reminder of the antagonism between two alpha-dog managers as they meet again in an even bigger match, right? Well, not exactly. The relationship is much more complex, and less contentious, than the meme lords might realize.

“I know people float that one gif around where I’m fist pumping,” Porter told reporters when the topic was broached this week, “but Bruce and I have always had a great relationship. I probably talk to him more than any head coach in the league.

“I've had a lot of discussions with him, actually, this year and he's a mentor. And for me, he's the best American coach ever,” Porter added. “When we see the championships that he's won at every level, the guy’s a winner, he is an unbelievable man manager, he doesn't get enough credit tactically, he's good tactically as well. Knows how to put a team together, push the right buttons. And it's no surprise that his team’s where it's at.”

That was just the start of Porter’s tribute to the Revolution boss, which provides a useful bookend to that exuberant display after beating him more than seven years ago. While Arena’s reputation took a hammer blow when he proved unable to steer the US men’s national team to the 2018 World Cup, he remains the dean of American soccer coaches. And he tends to offer a much more personable face in private than he does in front of the cameras.

“We’re on a very friendly basis. You guys make more out of that stuff than it is,” Arena said in his typically laconic manner when asked about his past history with Porter on a Friday media availability. “We're very friendly. I actually called him the other day and he returned the call. He's done a real good job and I certainly respect all he’s done in his different positions over the years. He's a good coach, and he's a good person.”

Arena’s voluminous trophy collection, the proven nous for turning around troubled teams, the high regard he enjoys from players, staffers and just about everyone else who works with him – these remain enviable traits in the profession that even the powerful stigma of Couva can’t erase. Even casual observers can see that, and you don’t have to love everything about his style or tactics in the process. Many of those who want so badly to beat him also wouldn't mind being him.

Porter’s admiration runs deep.

“He's been really a role model in a lot of ways,” he said of Arena. “When you look at his path, starting at [the University of] Virginia and then moving into MLS – when I was a player we played against his teams at Virginia and when I saw him make the jump to MLS, I followed his career there … for a guy like me, he gave me hope and a dream that maybe I could be in MLS as well. And you don't see that jump happening anymore.

“I remember when he left the national team after they didn't make the World Cup, and there weren't many people calling him to offer him a job. And I thought that was surprising,” noted Porter. “And when you see what he's doing now in New England, it's great for him that he's able to show again what he's shown over the years, at every single stop.”

There’s even a “sliding doors” angle here. When Gregg Berhalter left Columbus for the USMNT, that opened both head coach and sporting director vacancies. Arena was widely reported to be a leading candidate for the latter post, Porter for the former.

Their paths didn’t quite line up there. But they’ll cross at MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday, where the junior coach will match wits with the elder figure who’s been both target and measuring stick for his peers for most of MLS’s existence. An MLS Cup berth awaits the victor.

“I’ve never had the chance to go against Bruce in the playoffs,” mused Porter after the Crew’s 2-0 Semifinal win over Nashville SC. “I don’t know if I'm looking forward to it or not. But my team is.”

Series: